When Wendy Rust visited her late grandparents’ home in Manhasset over 20 years ago she looked in her grandfather’s dresser drawer, and discovered many letters from World War II. The majority of them were addressed from J.E. Russell — a young Baldwin family friend that everyone called “Jack”.
In December 2015, Wendy Rust's father was telling his granddaughter’s visiting British fiancé at the dinner table about Jack. Her father was wanting to find out where Jack was buried in England, if he had any family to contact and how many bombing missions he completed. Her father eventually got answers to all those questions and much more.
His stories and questions inspired his daughter Wendy Rust, a self-taught genealogist, to research him for countless hours that December that continued on and off for eight years until this day. She found his white cross grave marker at Cambridge American Cemetery with his full name John Edmund Russell through the Find A Grave website.
Also, Wendy Rust soon realized that Russell had a very complicated, distinguished service history with the Canadian, British, and American air forces. Last October, a 1947 reply letter from the US Army to Russell’s father was shared by the family that gave her father the number of missions, which was 39. Then several months later a very helpful researcher transcribed his 29 ops missions with the RAF 57 squadron and the research team hopes to find out the last remaining 10 or more from later in 1943.
Wendy Rust’s grandfather Adolf H. Rust was also a close friend of Jack Russell, a 1937 graduate of Baldwin High School who became a bomber pilot in World War II, and during the war, the Rust family exchanged letters with Russell. Wendy’s father, retired Marine and federal prosecutor, Col. Robert W. Rust, has fond memories from his childhood of Russell, who was tragically killed in a B-17 plane crash on Nov. 10, 1943.
“Seeing all these letters that my grandfather had — I stayed up until the wee hours reading them all — it was like a window into the past, learning about this friend of my grandfather and my young father,” Wendy Rust recalled.
After researching and rereading all the letters, Rust wanted to find out more. Last September, Steve Cooper of Baldwin, contacted her after seeing her Find A Grave memorial bio page for 2LT John Edmund Russell.
Cooper realized that his father Herb Cooper went to the same high school as the same time as Russell and was also on the Golden Wave football team. He told Wendy Rust that his father and Russell likely knew each other.
Cooper's father, like Russell, also volunteered and was a top turret gunner with the USAAF in the Pacific with 52 missions completed. Cooper located old newspaper articles about Russell, his Senior yearbook at the Baldwin Historical Society, and photographed the Baldwin WWII Honor Roll and the memorial plaque near Silver Lake. Cooper made Wendy Rust aware of the Baldwin Chamber veteran banner program which led to the Rust family to honor Jack with one this past Memorial Day flying until Veterans Day. It’s located on Grand Ave. near the Baldwin library. Then another Steve joined in from across the pond
Wendy Rust put her story and crash enquiry on WW2Aircraft.net and by sheer luck, aviation enthusiast Steve Andrews in England saw her enquiry and replied. The research on Russell became more and more compelling to unravel which inspired Andrews to keep at it. Wendy Rust has been researching Russell since 2015 and since last October, she has been working with Andrews to find out more about Russell’s service history and the crash as well as to set up a permanent memorial this Nov. 10th to commemorate its 80th anniversary with a small team in the UK and the US. A fellow aviation enthusiast, Clive Stevens of Brome, is part of the memorial team and is spearheading the Go Fund Me page which is provided below.
Through generous research with and from many along the way, Wendy Rust and Andrews unraveled Russell's complicated service history. Russell was such a skilled pilot that he was given the opportunity to train as a Pathfinder pilot reserved for the best of the best like pilot Arthur J. Reynolds. Jack flew with three Allied air forces: RCAF, RAF and USAAF. He was awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross and the American Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters.
Russell was flying with the U.S. Army Air Force in his final assignment with 482nd Bomber Group Pathfinder. He initially volunteered to train with the Canadian Air Force, as did pilot Arthur Reynolds, in July 1941 before Pearl Harbor at age 21 and flew on detached service with the Royal Air Force for the majority of his missions. In the 482nd BG, he co-piloted the first American plane equipped with H2S radar technology to allow bombing through overcast since the weather in Europe was a constant obstacle.
“A lot of missions in England around that time, were hard to complete without a radar,” Andrews explained in a Zoom call. “This highly secret radar, was such a game changer.”
Instead of pointing a radar scan at the planes in the air, Andrews said, Russell’s plane pointed it at the ground. The radar would help lead them to the target, the crew would then drop incendiary bombs and flares to mark it, and the planes following behind, without radar, could see where they needed to drop their bombs. According to Andrews, scientists who developed this technology said it would change the outcome of the war.
The morning of the crash, Russell, who co-piloted the B-17 Flying Fortress with the pilot Arthur Reynolds, along with nine other crew members and two passenger radar technicians were taking off from Thorpe Abbotts airbase in Norfolk, England. Since the mission they were to lead as the Pathfinder plane had been scrubbed due to weather over the target, they were heading back to their home station.
The crew list was Pilot - Arthur J. Reynolds, Co-Pilot - John E. Russell, Navigator - Sheldon V. McCormick, Bombardier - Albert L. Rolnick, Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner - Amos H. Behl, Radio and Gunner - Robert B. Holmes, Ball Turret Gunner - Leslie N. Boling, Waist Gunner - William H. Landers, Waist Gunner - Laurie C. Evans, Tail Gunner - Andrew J. Allison, and Radio and Radar Operator - John D. May. The two passengers were Radar Mechanics - Robert G. Levi and Herman J. Kolousek.
“They were heading home to Alconbury airbase, but unfortunately a fire started in the cockpit,” Andrews said. “We always suspected that there was a fire in the cockpit, there was a report of a fire in the engine. Normally, they would have gained altitude and parachuted out of the plane, but they didn’t, so we always suspected that the fire was more intense than the first crash report said.”
Russell and pilot Reynolds, with his crew, were all killed in the crash, as were four British road workers on the ground with their horse. This November 10th, a permanent memorial will be erected on the historic property where the Oaksmere Country Hotel is located in Brome, Suffolk, a village in England where the B-17 crashed.
“My father was about 15 years old when Jack was killed in the crash,” Wendy Rust said. “And my dad, at least since the age of 7, knew Jack." Wendy Rust shared that her father's loss 80 years ago is still felt by her father and that he is grateful that his friend will be remembered as a WWII hero along with the pilot Arthur Reynolds. Her father’s stories throughout the years always say that Russell was his first boss.
“He delivered magazines for Jack who sold subscriptions," Wendy Rust said. "In high school, Jack told my dad where to deliver the magazines around Baldwin. He got paid with blue stamps which could be traded in for prizes. This is how he got his first bicycle.”
Russell and Robert Rust lived about a mile from each other. Russell lived on Browning Street, and Robert Rust on Kenneth Avenue, a 10-minute walk away. Wendy Rust doesn’t know exactly when or where her father and Russell met, but she thinks they most likely crossed paths when Russell, then in high school, was delivering newspapers.
“My grandfather thought the world of Jack,” Wendy Rust said of Adolf H. Rust, who had a bond brokerage firm in New York City. “And he hired Jack before he went off to Canada in July of 1941. Russell was a bond runner for the elder Rust before he left for the war, and Wendy Rust said, her grandparents sent him care packages to England.
“Jack expressed genuine gratitude often for the friendship and support and in one thank you letter for the gift”, Wendy Rust continued, “but I’m thinking it was spending money."
He also sent a gift to help support Russell's young English orphan named Ernest Walden in a photo sent that Russell and his RAF crew “adopted” before his transfer. In a Long Island newspaper earlier in 1943 before his death, it referenced a war bond rally in the financial district where Russell's father allowed a letter from his son to be read. Wendy Rust said “it most likely was her grandfather reading it.” At that war bond rally, according to the newspaper story, a purse was passed around to raise money for this young war orphan.
"After Russell's death, in a late 1944 thank you letter to Adolf Rust from Jack’s mother it thanks him for the gift for the boy," Wendy Rust said. "And says 'it will be forwarded to the Red Cross Eagle Club who have handled this matter on previous occasions.' It says 'we have tried to adopt this child in memory of Jack, but have met with little success.' His mother goes on to say '…we recall with pride the esteem regard you had for our Jack and his convictions.'"
Wendy Rust found Jack Russell’s letters captivating, often good-spirited and endearing, she said, adding that he had a positive attitude, and didn’t talk much of the horrors of the war to her family.
“I would describe Jack as charismatic, good-natured and courageous,” Wendy said.